Rum Producers on Reforming Spirit's History - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Facing Rum’s Problematic Past Is Allowing Producers to Embrace the Spirit’s Future

Ian Burrell has done a few things in his 52 years on the planet. In addition to having founded UK RumFest in 2007, there was his stint as a professional basketball player in England and, nearly 25 years ago, the one-time bartender turned global rum ambassador would have been better known as the singer-songwriter of a British band called The Dude (which contributed the song “Rock da Juice” to the 2002 soundtrack for Scooby-Doo). More recently, he’s added a new line to his resumé—namely, rum philanthropist.

“I got to a stage in my career and life where I was starting to think more about the world and how we can leave our footprint,” recalls Burrell, who, in 2020, launched Equiano Rum, a spirit that supports a foundation of the same name. “That’s when I decided to create Equiano, to share the story of an enslaved African—not just the troubles and strife, but a celebration of accomplishment, empowerment, and perseverance. Of the many things that have come out from the darkness of the enslavement of Africans, rum is one of the shining lights.

There’s no shortage of booze brands that give back these days, but Equiano, named after abolitionist and writer Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797), who managed to buy his freedom by selling spices and rum, is a truly exceptional project. A mixture of rums from Mauritius and Barbados, it’s the world’s first African-Caribbean blended rum, echoing the journey Equiano was forced to make from Africa to Barbados, and then to the U.S. and the U.K.

Burrell notes that every aspect of the rum was created with intention, to aim for the end result of a tightly woven concept that manages to educate, and light a path for both progressive change and post-colonial rum. All the while, it’s raising money for Anti-Slavery International (ASI), the world’s oldest organization dedicated to stopping human trafficking and fighting against modern slavery.

“Of the many things that have come out from the darkness of the enslavement of Africans, rum is one of the shining lights.” —Ian Burrell

Burrell and his Equiano partners, Aaisha Dadral and Amanda Kakembo, have created a progressive spirit in a category with a reputation for being problematic, and they aren’t alone in their activism. In recent years, other rum projects have been established that are tackling such issues as cultural appropriation, allegations of labor abuses and inequality, subpar environmental practices, and a general lack of transparency about everything from what’s in the bottle to the role enslaved Africans played in the creation of the spirit.

Among these is Saint Benevolence, which sees that all proceeds fund projects in Haiti; certified B Corp rum distilleries, such as Hattier’s and Montanya; and recently established producers, such as Renegade Rum (Grenada) and Copalli Rum (Belize), which are focused on the promotion of progressive agriculture. Although these are all relatively small, independent brands, some larger, old-guard producers—notably Mount Gay in Barbados and Martinique’s Rhum J.M.—have redoubled their efforts with ambitious environmental initiatives.

Last year, Spiribam, which owns several Caribbean rum brands, officially launched the Rhum J.M Edden Project, an enterprising sustainability initiative focused on closing the loop by reusing bagasse (sugarcane pulp) and vinasse (a by-product from distillation), reducing single-use plastics, and repurposing old barrels at the Fonds Préville distillery, where Rhum J.M. is made. Spiribam hopes to be a leader in green distillation and claims that its Martinique facility is one of the most ecologically sustainable in the world.

In Barbados, under the leadership of agricultural manager Jacklyn Broomes, Mount Gay Rum has focused on water conservation, converted its fields over to 100 percent organic fertilizers, planted grasses that help stop soil erosion, and instituted biodiversity plots and regenerative agriculture projects—in addition to a range of other social and corporate responsibility initiatives.

This turn of events would have surely surprised anyone in the spirits and cocktail industry seven or eight years ago—a time when there were so many controversies in the rum space that it could easily have won the “Spirit Most Likely to Get Canceled” award. The controversies ranged from complaints of post-distillation “dosage” (added sugar) to a widely shared story on the website VICE alleging that poor labor conditions among sugarcane workers in Nicaragua were leading to higher rates of chronic kidney disease.

“Before that all erupted, I worked at a different rum distillery and I was trying really hard to source a single-origin, interesting molasses,” recalls Maggie Campbell, estate rum manager at Mount Gay. “At the time, it was hard to find anyone in the molasses business who understood why I would want that. After that article, I could point to something and say, ‘This is why sourcing matters.’ I did see a conversation change after that, and I think it’s ultimately for the better.”

Change doesn’t come from a single story (or even a slew of stories). But in that case, it helped spark a dialogue at more or less the same time that—thanks to the rise of divisive politics, an increase in racially motivated hate crimes and police violence, as well as a greater awareness of the climate crisis—people began talking about many, if not most, things radically differently. And some people are taking it beyond conversation. “As people start to care more about where the stuff they buy comes from and how the people who make it get treated, a lot of folks who don’t want to sever their relationship with sugarcane spirits are having to address both its troubling past and the current state of production,” says Chase Babcock, who co-founded Saint Benevolence with his father, Calvin Babcock.

Rum producers
Illustration by Matty Newton

The Babcocks didn’t get into this business primarily through a love of rum. Calvin Babcock started volunteering with Habitat for Humanity in Haiti more than 40 years ago, and after he retired from his day job, he established a charity with his best friend, Gueillant Dorcinvil, with the goal of building schools, churches, and clinics full-time. One of the first things they did was buy a communal sugarcane press—free for any farmer to use.

Saint Benevolence came much later—in 2017, when it dawned on Chase that selling the Dorcinvil family’s clairin (a Haitian spirit made from sugarcane juice) could help raise money for the charity. Although it’s still a tiny operation, it’s recently expanded to establish a cooperative with several other farmers, which helps with the complicated logistics of cane juice spirit production, which is at the mercy of the seasons.

Unlike molasses (or grain, for that matter), which can be stored for long periods and used months later, sugarcane needs to be processed immediately after harvest, to prevent a spontaneous fermentation that will introduce unpalatable flavors. Although that’s a challenge, the flip side is that its inherent freshness and seasonality have attracted people with an interest in terroir spirits.

One such person is Mark Reynier, former owner of Bruichladdich, who, in 2014, went on to found Ireland’s most ambitious terroir spirit project, Waterford Whisky. Last year, he launched Renegade Rum, a sister project in Grenada focused on cane spirits. As an ardent defender and promoter of the concept of terroir in spirits, Reynier makes ingredient-forward spirits produced through agricultural systems with a “progressive approach” at facilities that are “environmentally compliant.”

That’s an understatement when it comes to the rum facility, which is built according to standards that exceed Grenada’s regulations. When Jane Nurse, Renegade’s environmental compliance manager, shows off the water treatment system designed to protect the mangrove, she notes that there’s nothing stopping distillers from simply letting the effluent run off into the fields. “Practically speaking, we’re in an ecologically sensitive area and farming the area as well, so you don’t want [the effluent] to run into where you’re growing your own resources,” says Nurse. “There are multiple reasons, but Mark would simply say it’s just the right thing to do.”

Agricultural rums—such as clairin from Haiti, rhum agricole from Martinique and Guadeloupe, and cane juice spirit from Grenada and elsewhere—are a small (tiny, really) piece of the pie in a category that generated close to $2.5 billion in gross revenues in the U.S. in 2022, according to industry figures. But those focused on terroir have an outsized influence on the zeitgeist of progressive change, in part because they are, by definition, focused on sourcing raw materials and moving away from industrial agriculture.

“I find, with rum marketing, specifically Caribbean rum marketing, there’s often a lack of authenticity when it comes to the distance created between the spirit and the people who typically produce it. Both now and in the past.” —Christina Veira

At Renegade, that has meant getting into the cane-growing business. Reynier established a separate company, Cane Co, which farms 10 different areas in Grenada, all with unique microclimates and soil composition. And you can learn all about these with a Cane Code (a scannable QR code) that provides “uninhibited access” to every detail of the cane-to-glass journey for each bottle.

It’s an astonishing level of transparency, something that Reynier thinks will help the category be taken more seriously. He’s not the first to make that argument, of course. Richard Seale, master distiller and blender at Foursquare Distillery in Barbados, has been drawing attention to deceptive practices for years—primarily dosage, but also misleading labels that imply a spirit is older than it actually is.

The rum enthusiast community has helped push demands for transparency further by publishing sugar levels of specific spirits, obtained either from hydrometer tests or using information from the lab results listed on the websites of Scandinavian alcohol monopolies, such as Alko and Systembolaget. This rum vigilantism may be niche, but added sugar is something consumers increasingly care about, so producers are paying attention.

To Christina Veira, co-owner of Bar Mordecai in Toronto and a WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) educator, the campaign against added sugar is low-hanging fruit compared to other issues surrounding transparency. “Spirit companies always talk about authenticity, which is about more than just sugar,” says Veira. “I find, with rum marketing, specifically Caribbean rum marketing, there’s often a lack of authenticity when it comes to the distance created between the spirit and the people who typically produce it. Both now and in the past.”

Rum producers
Illustration by Matty Newton

Veira says this distance is largely created out of a concern that drawing attention to the role slavery played will make some segment of the market uncomfortable—and that segment is white people. “I’ve found that, as someone who is descended from enslaved peoples, I don’t have a discomfort with that history,” she says. “And I think most people in the Caribbean who know their family worked in the field are comfortable with that history. When there’s no interaction between the marketing and the people who make it and the place that it comes from—beyond what you’d get at a resort—you’re basically saying that all those people and all those aspects of culture don’t exist or are not important.”

To Veira, one of the most laudable aspects of the Equiano project is that it proves a brand of rum can be straight up about the historical record and, at the same time, connect it to contemporary culture, in which it’s still a source of modern-day, post-colonial pride. “One of the things you learn living here is that rum really does have this post-colonial life, and Caribbean people have a post-colonial relationship that’s full of love and respect for rum,” says Mount Gay’s Maggie Campbell. “We need to acknowledge that it’s a product of slavery, but also we need to recognize that it’s not only that one thing.”

[One] of the most laudable aspects of the Equiano project is that it proves a brand of rum can be straight up about the historical record and, at the same time, connect it to contemporary culture.

Something Ian Burrell says he tries to communicate with Equiano is how incredibly proud his cousin, who formerly worked as a security guard at Appleton Estates in Jamaica, was to work directly for the rum industry—and specifically for Joy Spence, the first accredited master blender in the spirits industry. And that pride, of course, is also the reason Burrell chose the specific historical figure he did as inspiration for his project.

Not only did Olaudah Equiano regain his freedom, he dedicated the rest of his life to working with other reformers to end slavery. As an activist and writer, he inspired other abolitionists and his book helped lay the groundwork for the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade in England—one of the most important advancements in human rights in modern history. “I purposely put ‘Journey of Enlightenment’ on the bottle [of Equiano Light], because, during the late 18th century, there’s that period of enlightenment when provokers and thinkers were thinking of the world in different ways and realized that things were wrong and we needed to change the way thatwe looked at the world,” Burrell says. “And that’s what I want to do with my rum.”

It’s a tall order. But Olaudah Equiano did it once before. Maybe, just maybe, Equiano and rum’s other reformers can do it again.

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